Author: Nina Kerkez

Diversity, Inclusion and Leadership at Cass

Nina and her cohort

My MBA experience is coming to an end. I am about to graduate this summer. Reflecting back, I can only say that my experience was mad – good and bad and crazy and intense and really like a roller-coaster. But I wouldn’t have changed it for anything, it was exactly how an Executive MBA is supposed to be. Except, my class had a higher proportion of men to women. Let’s talk about diversity and inclusion for a minute.

I am a proud recipient of the Women in Business Award by Cass. A few of my cohort members are. My school is extremely supportive of female leadership starting from a female dean, female board members and offering many scholarship opportunities to women applying to various programs. As with many schools, during the application process we are given an opportunity to apply for a multitude of scholarships, and us women have an opportunity to go for the diversity awards. Like in many boardrooms, business schools seem to struggle to entice working women to join the classroom part-time on top of their full time careers as professionals, and most likely even fuller time careers as mothers and wives. Therefore, many business schools will offer various awards to supports future female leaders and our prospect achievements in our individual fields. What a tremendous opportunity for us, but are we discriminating men? Who cares, you are thinking, women have been discriminated for years, it is our time to rise and shine!

#CassWomen

Hey, I don’t disagree. Give me an opportunity to shine and I’ll take it, nobody can stand in my way. Except, I don’t see the world with ‘men vs women’ eyes. I see an opportunity to grow personally and professionally, perhaps competing against other people, but their gender doesn’t bother me. I see an opportunity to shine, not because I am a woman, but because I have a unique perspective, and unique experience and knowledge that I bring to the table. That is what others should see too. Those that are incapable of seeing past my gender are not worthy of my time, and certainly organisations that recruit me because I am a woman and they ‘lack female leadership’ are not the places I would fit in. Not because I don’t bring a female touch to anything I do, trust me, I am emotional and I don’t hide those emotions, but that is also my choice. These are not the places for me, mostly because they care that I am a woman, and don’t care that I am an experienced professional. That is where I want equality.

I recently read an article in which a personality scientist states that if you are a woman and you popularly ‘lean-in’ you will become a dysfunctional leader. This scientist further states that most people have little insight into their leadership talents, and those that believe that are the best leaders are in fact the most incompetent leaders lacking self-awareness. Statistically, those leaders are most likely to be men – whether women have chosen a different path, chose to stay at home or were just not interested in leading, we are still working in a male dominated business environment. So if we are to lean in, and mimic the behaviours of these dysfunctional leaders, won’t we become dysfunctional as well? That is not my goal. My goal as female leader is to be humble but also to utilise my strengths: communication, passion, endurance, emotional intelligence, empathy, the ability to listen and connect, and the ability to think about my bigger picture, but also to think about the picture of the people I touch and bring on the path with me.

Nina Kerkez (Modular Executive MBA, 2019)

Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani education advocate, who at the age of 17 became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, is a true inspiration in leadership for me. She has overcome adversity, she is standing up to her rivals and she is overcoming diversity, whilst fighting for girls to pick up the books and pens, and get the education that they deserve. There are many things we could all learn from Malala, but as I talk about diversity and inclusion, in words of this wonderful woman it is important for us to remember: “Dear brothers and sisters, I am not against anyone… There was a time when women social activist asked men to stand up for their rights. But, this time, we will do it for ourselves. I am not telling men to step away from speaking for women’s rights rather I am focusing on the women to be independent to fight for themselves.”

So, in my view, my MBA class was extremely diverse containing people of all genders, many races and nationalities, and many professional backgrounds. It consisted of a group of 38 amazing individuals, each and every one of us unique in our own way. We have learned from each other and built relationships that will last us a lifetime. Perhaps, I am finding it harder than I thought to be at the end of this journey. But those connections built in the two years of classroom activity, travel and, let’s face it, pub activity together, give me the feeling that this is not quite the end.

Post-study drinks

Leadership and innovation in a war zone

As I am crossing at the Qalandya check point between Israel and the West Bank, the huge red sign shocks me: “The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law”.

It looks like something from a movie scene and you are not quite sure what to expect on the other side. We cross, and all I see is unfortunate reality of the region and conflict between these two territories, thoroughly reminded of my childhood in Yugoslavia.

On the Israeli side we saw the prosperous modern society, full of life and colours that are reflected in almost everything from streets, to people and food. On the Palestinian side our first impressions are the ruins, wall murals of past leaders, abandoned cars and chaos.

Israel and Palestine were my choice for the Cass MBA international electives. The focus of the elective was on Innovation and Technology, which comes as no surprise with Israel being known as the start-up nation. The first month into my Cass MBA, I learned that one of the international options for study will be Israel. I knew in that moment that this will be my choice of an elective – working in technology and financial crime, my interests spans across cyber security and regtech and fintech world.

International electives are intense. You go on a trip abroad and visit numerous locations and companies daily, whilst meeting and learning from founders, owners and investors. You travel from city to city and you cross borders, or in our case – check points.

Many won’t know that a large number of successful businesses materialised from Israel, such as Viber, Waze and Mobileye. The country prides itself as the start-up nation mostly driven by the uncertainty that seems to run through their DNA due to political and economic factors surrounding them. Success on the Israeli side, but what is going on behind the literal wall on the Palestinian Territory?

The western world often can’t understand why there are conflicts between people ‘somewhere far away from us’, and don’t really want to engage in that conversation. Most of my cohort was also confused as to why these two nations can’t be one. It just seemed logical that working in unity would be beneficial for both sides. The Palestinian side suffers a lack of infrastructure, lack of water and many other resources, yet they are as resourceful as Israel is!

The streets may look empty, but don’t let that fool you. Palestinian residents know how to live. On our first night we enter a restaurant and it is buzzing inside, the whole restaurant is packed with families and young couples dining and smoking shishas.

Our night ends in a famous bar packed with kids of American expats living in Palestine. Bizarre, you think? So did we. They are young, happy, dancing, and invite us to join them. We were not that cool to wear bandannas and lose ourselves to the sound of music, but nevertheless we did enjoy our night – we were useless at playing darts, but we proceeded to do so until late at night.

 

We met many successful entrepreneurs during the two days in Palestine. The Palestinian society is a lot more progressive than we are lead to believe. For example, the CEO of Bank of Palestine has fully eliminated the gender pay gap within the bank, insisting on this change himself.

There are in fact a number of factors working in favour of Palestinians. The Palestinian society has a high number of highly educated individuals, and it seems that its diaspora can fuel the culture of innovation and finance it. Of course, the circumstances of country’s occupation are also helping to kindle the creativity of Palestinians.

Speaking to a young entrepreneur at one of the events in Palestine, he mentioned the collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians. Whilst the countries are in conflict, the people seem to be less so. ‘We work together with our friends from Israel’, he said, ‘and our business is thriving.’ Of course, software has the unique ability to flow through wires and borders, but perhaps even more surprising was that he was talking about a medical business, moving people across borders and offering them medical help when needed.

I got home two days before the American embassy moved to Jerusalem. The news were full of horror stories coming from the region, and I was thinking – could successful cross border businesses help build peace in the region? Is it the organised chaos that is prevalent in the region that we need in order to innovate successfully?  Perhaps.

I wouldn’t want to attempt to predict the future of the region, but I hope that these two nations find a common language in innovation – after all making innovation happen is a collaborative process on many levels, from nations to countries, to companies, to military and teams.

Nina Kerkez
Modular Executive MBA (2019)

What makes my MBA

“I said maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me” is blasting from my radio as I’m driving and all I can think of is Vietnam. Why, you ask? Well… that is how we closed our trip to Vietnam, in the dodgiest karaoke parlour in a private room, somewhere in the middle of residential Hanoi.

We are not really sure whose idea it was, but nights in Beer Street and endless amounts of beer or other alcohol will do that to you. It was a long week for all of us; our exam results came in just before Vietnam and thankfully, the whole cohort has passed.

We also just finished our International Consulting Week with various Vietnamese companies and we were ready for celebration. Not that we needed an excuse for it.

When you start exploring an Executive MBA as an option for the first time, nobody prepares you for what it truly is. You hear that it is the hardest thing people have done in their life. You hear that a lot, as well as that you need a lot of family support, work support and plenty of hours of study a week.

If you are exploring Cass, you also hear that you will get a lot of international exposure through International Consulting Week and electives. That is all true. You need plenty of time to work with your groups on assignments and you definitely need a lot of support from your surroundings.

Then, 38 professional adults get to go on a consulting week to Vietnam, supported by their families. You are placed into a new working group from your cohort, new country and new company, all you have to do is figure it all out within a week and deliver amazing results. Really, not much of an ask (sarcasm intended).

Vietnam – a country that we learned is struggling through high level of instability, a country that is culturally hierarchical and extremely different to our normal environment. With such differences from our world, we were not sure what to expect in the business environment or how to navigate it, but most importantly when we had expectations, the reality turned out to be completely opposite.

Not only are you navigating thousands of motorbikes on the streets of Vietnam, but you are also navigating the unknown working environment and language barriers.  But don’t let that dishearten you! All the difficulties we faced, proved to be a challenge that we all wanted, and we came out on the other side with a very positive feeling.

Vietnam is a very fast developing country, and with that so are the companies that we have worked for. With growth come challenges, and many of the things could have been addressed within businesses. Scoping our work was probably the hardest thing we had to do, but once it was agreed between us and the hosts, we embraced it and we delivered. With the pace of change in Vietnam, the scopes can change daily too, yet that is all part of the fun that this week brings to you.

The day before our presentation to the business’s directors, we had a sudden lightbulb moment and decided on a scope change at 4pm. When you are a part of an MBA group, you most likely don’t like to make things easy on yourself and embrace any challenges thrown your way, so we buckled up and continued working as a group till’ after midnight.

In the end, we delivered an extremely successful presentation the next morning, and our company loved us, they want to adopt us, or perhaps just permanently employ us.

 

But let me focus on my cohort for a minute. My friends, rather. The most amazing, the most resourceful and fun group of people I have ever come across with. It comes by no surprise that most of us share ambition and drive, but all of us have different backgrounds, and yet again most of us are very alike. We work hard and we party even harder – the quiet ones will always surprise you.

We also argue and disagree more than you would think, at times we don’t like working with each other and we think that we would get things done much quicker and easier if we could just finish them on our own. But, the reality of things is that we can’t. So we learn to be patient, be there for each other and love each other regardless of what happened five minutes ago in that team meeting where we annoyed each other.

My MBA friends are there when I need them, they are there for the highs and the lows on this crazy journey and we sympathise with each other as we are going through this collectively. If I had to pick one thing that made my Vietnam week, or even my first year of MBA, then it would definitely be the people around me. I thank Cass for bringing us together and placing us in the most random of places where we could go to the dodgy karaoke bar for a song or ten.

After all, we are all each other’s wonderwall.

 

Nina Kerkez
Modular Executive MBA (2019)

 

 

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